Stonehenge’s ‘heritage site’ status hangs in balance amid controversial tunnel plan

The government’s approval of a tunnel near Stonehenge has ignited strong opposition from campaigners

Stonehenge’s UNESCO status hangs in balance amid controversial road tunnel plans.—Reuters

Stonehenge, an iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site, faces the imminent threat of removal from the prestigious list if plans for a £1.7 billion road tunnel near the monument proceed, warned a High Court hearing.

The government’s approval of the tunnel has ignited strong opposition from campaigners, who argue that UNESCO’s concerns were unjustifiably ignored, potentially jeopardising the site’s global recognition.

Stonehenge, a cultural and historical landmark attracting over a million visitors annually, was designated a ‘World Heritage in danger’ site by UNESCO in 2021.

Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) contends that the government’s approval marks the initial step toward delisting, marking a significant turning point in the ongoing battle over the controversial road project.

Campaigners, represented by David Wolfe KC for SSWHS, argue that the approved scheme, including a two-mile tunnel covering a stretch of the A303, would result in the irreversible destruction of approximately seven hectares of the world heritage site.

The implications of such destruction extend beyond the physical impact, encompassing the site’s research value, cultural importance, emblematic significance, and the UK’s reputation for fulfilling its obligations under the World Heritage Convention.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper’s backing of the tunnel project, including the overhaul of eight miles of the A303, is the focal point of the legal challenge. 

The proposed tunnel had previously faced setbacks when its development consent order was quashed by the High Court in 2021 due to environmental concerns. However, the Department for Transport (DfT) reapproved the tunnel in July 2023, reigniting the dispute.

James Strachan KC, representing the DfT, argued that there is no inadequacy in addressing the hypothetical risk of delisting, emphasising that the world heritage site has not been delisted. 

The DfT contends that the benefits of the scheme, notably improved traffic conditions, outweigh potential harm, including what is described as “less than substantial harm to heritage assets.”

The hearing before Mr Justice Holgate is expected to conclude on Thursday, with a ruling anticipated at a later date. The outcome of this legal battle holds significant implications for Stonehenge’s standing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its preservation for future generations.


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